Welcome back to our 2019 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Relative to the many strides Virginia football has made since hiring Bronco Mendenhall, the development of an offensive identity has been a somewhat slow endeavor. Simply put, the Hoos’ offense was not good in the former BYU coach’s first two seasons.
In his first campaign with a dual-threat quarterback, however, Mendenhall and his longtime OC Robert Anae finally saw stable offense begin to take shape. Interestingly, the success found on offense last season came about somewhat differently how the pair ran their attack at BYU – though some similarities remain.
With the hype around what looks to be a solid Virginia offense growing for this season, I look at some of the keys to the (and failure) of Mendenhall’s past few offenses, and how the Hoos look to fare this season with the personnel and scheme they plan to roll with.
2018 Season Statistics (ACC Rank)
Yards/Game: 173.2 (10th)
Yards/Att.: 4.5 (6th)
Yards/Game: 211.6 (10th)
Yards/Att.: 7.7 (7th)
Yards/Game: 384.8 (10th)
Yards/Att.: 5.8 (6th)
Sacks Allowed/Game: 2.46 (10th)
3rdDown Conv. %: 49.1% (1st)
Points/Game: 28.5 (9th)
Turnover Margin/Game: 0.15 (6th)
Time Of Possession: 32:33 min/game (4th)
Position Group Summaries
Click for links:
Quarterbacks - Grade: A
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends - Grade: C+
Running Backs - Grade: B
Offensive Line - Grade: C+
Third-Down Offense - One area the passing offense thrived in last season was third down. The Virginia offense ranked sixth in the country with a 49.1 percent third down conversion rate, and was the FBS leader in third-and-medium success rate per S&P+. Unfortunately, though, two of their best chain-movers have since been lost to graduation. Tight end Evan Butts made most of his pass catching contributions running short hitch routes to the middle of the field in space to move the chains, a niche he was very effective in. Star slot receiver Olamide Zacchaeus became a stalwart on third downs for his ability to turn lemons into lemonade, using incredible shiftiness and accelerations off screens and slants to evade and create space.
Anae’s short-passing playbook may not have to be altered much if younger players step up, though. Senior tight end Tanner Cowley looks like a natural fit to replace Butts’ limited role in the passing game, with a very similar bulky build (six-foot-four, 240 lbs). Though he only caught four passes last season, he showed some nice explosiveness with 17 yards per reception. Meanwhile, receivers Tavares Kelly and Chris Sharp have both shown glimpses of Zacchaeus’ skillset in moments, and will likely be competing for playing time in the slot.
Run Blocking - While the loss of starting running back Jordan Ellis definitely hurt the running game for next season, he wasn’t the only catalyst for the scheme’s improvement. The offensive line was just as pivotal. Virginia improved it’s stuff rate – the percentage of plays in which is allowed a runner to be tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage – from 20.9 percent in 2018 to 14.4 percent. That’s good for twelfth(!) in the FBS. Ellis had a knack for fighting for extra yards in the trenches, but the line did a solid job of opening up intial holes for him. On the outside, Perkins was given frequenty room to accelrate when he was able to get out of the pocket.
The line actually looks to hold pretty strong this season. Last year’s O-Line will be returning three starters from in left tackle Ryan Nelson, left guard Chris Glaser and center Dillon Reinskensmeyer. Air Force transfer and former walk on Olusegun Oluwatimi has reportedly stood out as the starting center during training game, so if Reinskensmeyer shifts along the interior, the team will have a veteran foursome to start the year. Highly anticipated graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt was unfortunately lost for the season to injury, but the arrival of four-star tackle Ja’quay Hubbard will help Mendenhall plug up that hole.
Uncertainty at RB - As I just mentioned, losing Ellis hurts, and much time will be devoted to replacing his massive role in the offense (he was the only true RB to top 30 carries last season. There’s still no clear succession plan, though there are plenty of options to work with. The likely successor of bell cow duties at the beginning of this offseason was P.K. Kier, who’s six-foot, 235 pound frame lends him well to be a downhill force between the tackles. Kier’s concussion early in the Spring opened the door for sophomore back Wayne Taulapapa (5-foot-9, 210) to seize the starting role with Mendenhall’s endorsement by the end of April. What both have in promise they lack double in experience, so the battle for the starting gig is far from over.
Red-Zone Conversion - Whatever Virginia was doing to find success with a slower tempo, its effectiveness greatly stalled where it mattered most. The offense ranked 91st in the country in success rate inside the 10-yard line, 104th in goal-line success rate and 124th in first-and-giak success rate. They became significantly more effective between the 30 and 10 yard lines, but could not punch the ball in from short range, often settling for field goals.
It’s not clear what the fix is, but the team could probably benefit from addressing defensive pressure inside the red zone. Virginia ranked 87th in blitz-down success rate, so designing plays that give Perkins max protection and buy him time to make decisions could improve efficiency. A more work-around option would be to find more success outside the 10-yard line by converting big-plays – defined by S&P+ as over 20 yards – an area the Hoos ranked 112thin in 2018. The ability to convert explosive plays could limit the amount of plays Anae has to call on a short field, and possesses some big-play receivers who can haul in long throws.
Keys to Success
1. Play at the right tempo - As I mentioned, the path to offensive success for Mendenhall at Virginia has been somewhat different than that of his time at BYU. This is perhaps most drastically seen when analyzing the tempo his offenses have played at. The 2014 BYU and 2018 Virginia offenses both finished the season ranked 41stin the S&P+ Offensive Ranking among FBS teams. Interestingly, they were not run in the same manner:
-- His 2014 offense averaged 2.83 plays per minute, the sixth most in the country.
-- His 2019 offense averaged 2.03 plays per minute, the eleventh least in the country.
The different paces didn’t yield the same production, with the BYU team averaging almost 10 more points per game, but the efficiency was strikingly similar. And boy, did it pay off to slow things down. The Virginia offense went from scoring 1.66 points per possession in 2016 and 2017, running at a similar pace to the 2014 BYU team, to 2.3 last season, and turned the ball over in around four percent fewer possessions. The tempo has slowed more and more along the way.
Much like our National Champions over at JPJ, the Virginia offense found life by prioritizing ball security and methodical, grind-it-out offense. The question is whether this offensive style is sustainable – or desirable – this coming season and beyond.
With a more comfortable Perkins and veteran receivers, Mendenhall could probably afford to take more risks with quick play-calling towards the end of drives to catch defenses off-guard and tired. If Mendenhall opts to preserve a time-of-possession advantage instead – where Virginia ranked 20th nationally in 2018 – the tempo will probably stay relatively slow. It’s anyone’s guess how things may change, but tempo is certainly a metric to keep an eye as the 2019 offense takes shape.
2. Run the ball, a lot - While the skill position talent has shifted towards the receiving corps on paper, don’t expect Mendenhall and Anae to lean more heavily on their passing attack. Mendenhall’s only losing seasons since 2014 – his first two years at Virginia – were the only two in which his offense attempted a greater proportion of passes than rushing plays. Last year was a microcosm of this trend – the Hoos went 6-1 in games in which they rushed for over half their offensive plays, and 2-4 when they favored the pass.
Despite the uncertainty at running back, the team does have an elite running quarterback in Perkins returning. He may have to take over as the cornerstone of the running game next season, likely shifting the attack from Ellis’ north-south running to more option-heavy (which was only really used against lesser competition last season). Perkins mostly ran on scrambles or naked QB draws, with his decision making about when to tuck-and-run sometimes spotty. Getting him to the outside in space will be the key to opening up the floodgates inside for younger backs, and Perkins certainly has the athleticism to stretch defenses out.
3. Establish big-play receivers - Though his short-passing offense looked solid last season, Anae has the experienced personnel to unlock the deep ball next season. This starts with Joe Reed, whom Perkins began to develop a dangerous rapport with at the end of last season (five-TDs-in-three-games dangerous, thought one was tossed by backup QB Brennan Armstrong). Reed’s game-breaking speed and evasiveness finally translated from kick-returning into receiving, as he became a weapon to bail out Virginia’s stalling offense late in the season. If he can stretch the field like Andre Levrone did for Benkert in 2017, it can not only lead to some quick scores, but also can get Perkins some space in the middle of the field for easier passes. Arizona State transfer Terrell Chapman will likely also help dial up the deep ball, with his 6'4" frame making him an ideal target in the redzone.
Those middling throws will likely find the hands of Hasise Dubois or Dejon Brissett. Dubois had a nice junior season, developing into a sure-handed possession receiver to complement his big frame. What he lacks in explosiveness, he made up with the ability to overpower defenders, find quick space and pull down some tough catches. Brissett, a transfer from Richmond, has a more hybrid feel to him. Originally a kick-returner like Reed, Brissett showed in his 876-yard junior season he can lose defenders on the first step and fly for deep and intermediate throws. His versatility and six-foot length will give him a chance to slide right between Reed and Dubois’ roles immediately.
Mendenhall and Anae have a lot of offensive potential to unlock if they can some effectively re-tool each position unit and tweak their identity accordingly. With raw potential at running back an an abundance of options at receivers, the pair have a many skills to sift through to put the right system in place. The answer to whether or not they choose to embrace a slower pace or not likely depends on how each unit improves together and how their top players function best in the offense. The offense’s efficiency – and pizazz – could certainty benefit from dialing up more big plays and catching defenses off-guard with explosiveness mixed into a slower tempo.
But make no mistake. This offense will revolve around Perkins and the grinding run game once again. Perkins’ ability to create offense for himself and the skill players around him, while once again limiting mistakes, will ultimately guide the direction of the offense. If Kier and/or Taulapapa emerge as a bruiser behind him, the offense can pick up where it ended last season (*cough* 28-0). From there, Anae open up his passing playbook and, once the chains start moving, get funky with some deep balls to his big-bodied receiving corps.
After years of agony and uncertainty on the offensive side, Virginia’s offense is looking now dynamic and must-watch. Savor every Perkins hurdle before he’s gone.